Scientists in five countries, including the Kenya, hope to find a universal cure for snakebite using the same technology that discovered HIV antibodies.

A new consortium of venom specialists in India, Kenya, Nigeria, Britain and the US will locate and develop antibodies to treat critical illness from snakebites, which harm nearly 3 million people worldwide each year.

The consortium will seek an antidote comprised of “humanised antibodies” rather than conventional animal-based therapies, which can sometimes cause adverse effects in snakebite victims, said Prof Robert Harrison, who heads the centre for snakebite research and interventions at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

“We’re pursuing what we call the ‘next generation’ of snakebite therapies, which we hope will be able to treat bites from any snake in Africa or India, in a community setting, and without the need for a cold chain,” said Harrison.


“The conventional method of producing antivenom to treat snakebite involves purifying antibodies from venom-immunised horses or sheep and injecting this into patients. This can cause adverse side effects and, because of that, the antivenom has to be administered in a hospital setting.

“That means that victims have to get to hospital from their communities, which are usually several hours away, and in that time there is usually a progression of very severe pathology, which can sometimes lead to severe disfigurements or death.”

Rory Stewart, the UK’s international development secretary, who last week announced £9m in UK aid to fund the research, said the new antidote would help “develop an affordable, accessible, effective treatment” to envenoming if successful.

“In parts of Africa and Asia, snakebites are a daily threat, causing life-changing disabilities or – in the worst case – death,” said Stewart.

“More than 80,000 people die every year from snakebites and because of the huge variety of snake venoms, people often do not get the treatment they need in time, if at all.”

The £9m UK pledge is among a flurry of recent commitments directed at transforming snakebite management. Last week, the Wellcome Trust announced an £80m programme to improve current therapies and develop new ones. On Thursday, the World Health Organization announced a new strategy to halve the number of global snakebite deaths by 2030.

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